Title: The Aviator
Genre: Biography, Drama
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenwriters: John Logan
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale
The end of the year brings a predictable slew of biopics, “true life” stories that turn historical figures into mythological ones in the hopes of success, then awards, then more success. Of this year’s particularly prolific bunch, surely Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, a sweeping, thoughtful bit of Old Hollywood, is the best. Some will say that it represents a softening of Scorsese’s sensibilities, a sheepish retreat from the challenges of polarizing films like Bringing Out the Dead and Gangs of New York; I think it’s a glorious foray into thoughtful, accessible entertainment. It may not be adventurous in form, but it’s smart and it refuses to pander — a considerable risk in its own right.
While hackwork like Beyond the Sea does little more than translate qualities commonly ascribed to famous people onto the screen, The Aviator creates characters, fleshed-out human beings with their own motivations, quirks and insecurities. This is not a Howard Hughes Greatest Hits reel like Milos Forman’s Man on the Moon was to Andy Kaufman; nor is it a laudatory and sycophantic praiseography like The Hurricane. It is a real movie, drawing inspiration from history but going its own way, declaring independence from its “based on a true story” origins. I can read about Howard Hughes in textbooks and newspapers, but I won’t be able to find a story this deep, this true, this exciting.
Scorsese is not above framing devices, but his are used thematically rather than for exposition or emotional manipulation. Watch how the opening scene of The Aviator comes back again and again — sometimes literally, in haunting flashbacks; other times as fleeting hints embedded in the dialogue. And watch the cut from that old childhood memory to Leonardo DiCaprio’s first scene — there’s no transitional device, or even any rhyme or reason to the way it’s executed, but it works so brilliantly, throwing you into the story without any vague biopic notions of “propriety” and “respect.”
Hughes was by all accounts a complicated man, a volatile mix of ambition, stubbornness and serious mental issues, and the movie makes all of theses things an aspect of his humanity. His illness isn’t converted into a suspenseful circus a la A Beautiful Mind, nor is his tunnel vision portrayed as an amusing idiosyncrasy. The ridiculous lengths to which he goes to achieve what he wants aren’t heroic acts of martyrdom or self-sacrifice but the whims of someone who is as bullheaded as he is rich, flawed and fascinating.
The intense character study lies in the midst of a wealth of details and unforgettable moments. Cate Blanchett storms onto the screen with a ridiculous but giddily entertaining performance as Katherine Hepburn. There is an utterly hilarious scene at the Hepburn dinner table, with her family insisting that “we’re all socialists here,” and responding to “I read trade journals” with “we read books.” Blanchett will get all the awards attention, but I think Frances Conroy almost steals the show as her mother. But anyway there’s no shortage of acting highlights here, from Alec Baldwin’s relatively understated turn as Pan Am head Juan Trippe to Alan Alda’s brilliantly smarmy portrayal of corrupt Senator Ralph Owen Brewster, who sets out to destroy Hughes and his business ambitions.
Chunks of the movie are pure Hollywood entertainment as we still think of it, with predictable but satisfying confrontations and fairly conventional suspense. This is not the typical approach for Scorsese, but he handles it like an old pro, and moments of The Aviator got my pulse racing in all the ways I would expect. There’s elaborate CGI, and a soaring score by Howard Shore, and it all comes together in a way that would do Steven Spielberg proud.
Never content, Scorsese intersperses these sequences with ones much more abstract and challenging, and the result is a rarity: an epic with a full complement of both emotional and intellectual appeal. It is what happens when Miramax’s Oscar bait philosophy encounters genuine intelligence and talent. The Aviator takes what is known about Howard Hughes, transforms it, confounds it, makes it into cinema and art. It transcends history.